Accidental Life

Fiction / Desiree Dighton

:: Accidental Life ::

Tread­ing water. That’s how I imag­ine her, the image I have in my mind. At that age in the mid­dle of the lake in the dark, she could be any­one. But, still. Lau­ra treads water, her legs in a joy­ful ner­vous dance, and her left ankle begins to ache. She has to rest. She has to be still. And so she dips just under the water, into the after­math of her kick­ing, the slow­ly spread­ing rip­ples of water, a few bub­bles tick­ling her face.

It’s a game, this going under­wa­ter, a flirt with drown­ing, dis­ap­pear­ing, fright­en­ing her­self. It’s a game she can win at any time, if com­ing to the sur­face can be con­sid­ered a win. All she has to do is push her arms down against the water and then up again and then down. Her body enveloped in feath­ery plumes. She pro­pels her­self all the way down to the bot­tom of the lake, and her feet sink in the silt bot­tom, a mud cloud engulf­ing her legs until her toes reach the firm clay under­neath. All this hap­pens too quick­ly to count down the sec­onds, but to her, under the water, it seems like a long time. She bends against the firm bot­tom, famil­iar to her now. Push­es hard with her legs, springs back up. The usu­al­ly vel­vet touch of the water against her skin feels near­ly sol­id against her. She breaks through the sur­face almost silent­ly and inhales, her breath a small tin-like sound in the dark. She treads again and wipes water out of one eye and then the next. Only a few feet away, a human shape, not more than a shad­ow, bobs qui­et­ly in the dark. She won­ders if any­one is there at all, if it’s just a trick, her eyes try­ing to adjust and see some­thing, any­thing at all in the night.

The pale form of a hand grabs for the ankle or her bare foot—her skin a mys­ti­cal shade of green, almost glow­ing on its own, despite the lack of light—the hand grasp­ing and miss­ing. She kicks the water into yel­low swirls, her legs so close to the sur­face that the moon illu­mi­nates her skin in the watery pale green light. Her body slip­pery, so that his hand can’t quite grasp her, until it does, and they are both at once aware of their sol­id bod­ies in the water. His flesh and mus­cle cause the water to lap against her and then to still. Because they are both strong swim­mers, they can hold on to each oth­er and tread water at once. She takes in a mouth­ful of water but stops her­self before she chokes. His hand grazes beneath her leg and winds it around his waist like a rope. She leans her head back to rest in the water and the white ovals of their faces tilt upwards and catch the moon­light.

Maybe you would’ve seen only the water’s gen­tle rip­ples and nev­er felt what must have been the hot, wet breath escap­ing from their mouths. You won’t ever know her, or even him. I nev­er met her, not prop­er­ly, although I’ve come to know her as well as my own skin, or yours, for that mat­ter. And him, I wouldn’t claim to know him, not tru­ly. But I imag­ine that one day you’ll want some sort of expla­na­tion. And I look out over this lake, a dif­fer­ent one alto­geth­er, one that even in the sum­mer can seem cold in its end­less­ness, but I also think there’s beau­ty and a strange peace of mind in nev­er being able to see all the way to the oth­er side, an end­less­ness that allows there to be no con­clu­sion, no truth you can­not bring your­self to love. Morn­ings, I’ve watched the sun rise and glint on the sur­face before it takes over the sky, show­ing all too much of every­thing that’s out there—the honk­ing and yelling and speed­ing and cursing—but that moment before, when it’s no longer night but not yet day, when all I can see is that great plain of water, it is then that I imag­ine I can see her most clear­ly, bob­bing there on the sur­face, a tiny dot, a buoy that began us both.

Some­times, if I close my eyes at that moment, I imag­ine I can feel her life cours­ing through my body. Maybe you feel it too. Maybe I don’t have to tell you her sto­ry. But this is one of those lies we tell our­selves to avoid what we know. She was your begin­ning, and I will try to explain how that can be. Because, after all, we have a right to know how we began.

***

The vio­las in front of the house grew low to the ground, and Lau­ra couldn’t pull them unless she knelt down in the dirt. She’d get twen­ty dol­lars if she pulled the crisp stems out and replaced them with hearti­er pan­sies.

Laura’s grand­ma told her how to pull the dead plants and the near­ly dead ones, flow­ers that looked like they wouldn’t make it anoth­er month. Lau­ra didn’t under­stand why that had to be done right now, but she felt like it had some­thing to do with her moth­er com­ing over lat­er. She stood in the yard at the edge of the flowerbed and looked around to see if any of the neigh­bors were watch­ing, if any­one she knew hap­pened to be walk­ing around, or dri­ving by on the road in front of the house. When she was sat­is­fied, she knelt down to where she’d set her radio and hit play on the cas­sette play­er.

Out of the cor­ner of her eye, she could see Heath Gra­ham come out­side and walk down the dri­ve­way next door to wash an old Corvette. She didn’t know the year, but it was the spark­ly roy­al blue of bowl­ing balls and roller skate wheels. Heath’s father fol­lowed him out the door and began to wax a Harley David­son, buff­ing the cus­tom paint job, some kind of pink swirly writ­ing Lau­ra couldn’t quite make out but guessed said Heath’s dad’s name. Heath was six­teen, only two years old­er than Lau­ra, but he had his dri­vers’ license, and she didn’t.

Her lock­er was in the fresh­man hall­way at school, and his was in the one for juniors. Lau­ra liked to watch him hang up his bag in his lock­er, the way his arm mus­cles changed as he per­formed each move­ment, the sim­ple act of get­ting his books togeth­er some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent when his hands did it. She espe­cial­ly liked the way his mouth fell open a lit­tle when he bowed his head to look for the right text­book.

Now, stand­ing there just across the yard, she also liked to watch his mus­cles doing these things she’d not seen him do before now, like spray­ing the car down with the gar­den hose. She espe­cial­ly liked the skin on his arm just below the line of his short shirt­sleeve, the way the mus­cle stood out, but there was a hol­low too. The set­ting sun shone hard and bright off the met­al, so bright she had to squint to see this hol­low very well, but his skin shone too, which made it a lit­tle eas­i­er. His arms looked near­ly hair­less, like a boy’s, but his shoul­ders seemed broad­er and stronger and some­how more real to her than any oth­er shoul­ders in the world. She’d nev­er real­ly under­stood or seen shoul­ders, she felt, until she’d start­ed notic­ing his. She stud­ied the way they changed shape as he soaped the car with a large yel­low sponge and dried it with a white cloth she’d heard him call a sham­my. He opened a flat can with anoth­er tow­el, and with a cir­cu­lar motion of his cupped fin­gers lift­ed out a glob of shiny car wax. She could smell its gaso­line odor from her yard. She breathed in deep­er to see if she could fill her body with it, and that’s when he glanced up and saw her there on her knees.

She tried to quick­ly look away, change her own part­ed lips into an expres­sion of dis­in­ter­est, but knew she wasn’t suc­cess­ful, so she decid­ed to wave, but then regret­ted that too. She didn’t want him to think she’d been watch­ing. She dropped her hand as quick­ly as she’d raised it, knelt down, and picked up anoth­er crate of the flow­ers her grand­moth­er had left near the flowerbed. When she dared look up again, there was his blonde hair, all lit up as he walked out from the shade of the car­port, as though he were walk­ing toward her, but she knew that he couldn’t be. He’d nev­er spo­ken to her, not real­ly. She didn’t know why he was home right now at all, and she wished she didn’t have to be on her knees in the dirt. Why wasn’t he at foot­ball prac­tice or maybe lift­ing? She pic­tured him down in the weight room at school with his friends so she wouldn’t have to think about him being next door, or maybe walk­ing toward her right now. It was dif­fi­cult to pic­ture because she’d only ever been inside the high school gym­na­si­um, but she knew there was also a weight room beneath the gym. She made her­self imag­ine Heath and the oth­er foot­ball play­ers down there, laugh­ing, reclined on slick red weight bench­es, lift­ing weights in rhythm to songs on the radio.

When she glanced up again, Heath was halfway across the yard, tuck­ing the sham­my into his front jeans pock­et. When he saw her eyes, he low­ered his head, as though he were embar­rassed, but she didn’t think he was. She was sur­prised he’d walk over to talk to her at all, but espe­cial­ly with his dad right there. She couldn’t believe he’d even noticed her down there in the dirt. She’d half-hoped he hadn’t and half-hoped he’d do just what he was doing now. She could see the skin on the side of his neck as he looked away. She didn’t think she’d ever seen it from this angle before, and the shape of it, the strain and tight­ness of his skin just there, she could almost feel it. He’d nev­er seemed shy before, not on all those days after school let out, when Lau­ra and her friends would stand around and pre­tend like they weren’t wait­ing near the gym­na­si­um for the old­er boys to get out of foot­ball prac­tice at four thir­ty. Some­times, when he’d walk by, she would will him to look at her, but he nev­er did. She’d be loung­ing on the trunk of someone’s car, pre­tend­ing to wait for her moth­er to pick her up. She’d dan­gle her legs over the edge of the trunk, kick­ing slight­ly, as though she were bored, and once the back of her black bal­let flat slid from one heel, the shoe catch­ing and sus­pend­ing off her big toe, her nails paint­ed a mel­on shade of pink, but it didn’t fall all the way off, so she’d nev­er know if he would have bent to pick it up for her and smile before plac­ing it back on her foot.

It was only a few days ago when Heath and his friends had stopped in the park­ing lot on their way to the foot­ball field. They were stand­ing just a few feet away from her, jok­ing around, talk­ing about what they were going to do lat­er. This was when her shoe slipped and hung from her toe, and she tried to will it to fall onto the grav­el, to see if Heath would break away from his friends to pick it up and hand it to her. He met her eyes for a split sec­ond, but then he’d turned away to talk to her friend Shan­non, who’d been late get­ting out of deten­tion. They  glanced over at her as they talked, walked over toward where she sat with the oth­ers on the hood of a car. His eyes meet­ing her eyes, even for a frac­tion of a sec­ond, made her chest fill up. She need­ed to jump down from the trunk and move, walk around, dance, any­thing.

She heard him say some­thing about the foot­ball game on Tues­day night and then he laughed at some­thing Shan­non said. When he asked if they were going to the par­ty after­ward, he looked at Shan­non, not at Lau­ra. He could prob­a­bly tell how des­per­ate­ly she want­ed to go, maybe even knew how much she liked him, and he wasn’t going to ask her.

That night, when her grand­moth­er and broth­ers had gone to sleep, Lau­ra did climb down from her bed­room win­dow and cross the dri­ve­way to the Grahams’s, where Shan­non and Heath’s friends wait­ed in his car. They wait­ed there instead of in her dri­ve­way so her grand­moth­er wouldn’t wake to the sound of a car pulling in and the engine idling and won­der who could be sit­ting in a car out­side at mid­night. Heath didn’t speak to her at the par­ty. Every minute, she knew where he was stand­ing, no mat­ter how far across the room, and knew who he was talk­ing to instead of her. When he drove them all home, she sat behind him, which wasn’t the great­est, but at least she could study his hair­line, some­thing she’d nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do, and the back of his ear­lobes, the way his face looked dif­fer­ent when viewed from the side and from behind. When he caught her look­ing at him in the side mir­ror, she looked away. She refo­cused instead on his arm, which she could clear­ly see on the arm­rest. She imag­ined that same arm rest­ing across her back, maybe even pulling her toward him. She’d nev­er kissed a boy, not real­ly, and she’d cer­tain­ly nev­er been in bed with one, but she liked to think how it would be with Heath. His skin with the mus­cles and bones she’d stud­ied so thor­ough­ly, his tan arm with a few scars she’d mem­o­rized, one in the shape of a fish hook mid­way between his wrist and elbow, anoth­er made of small cir­cles like an insignia had been burned into his flesh and fad­ed. She imag­ined he got the fish-hook scar from snag­ging his arm on barbed wire, work­ing in the fields over the sum­mers with his friends. The burn? The burn he’d got­ten as a child when his dad took him to work at the pow­er plant and he’d acci­den­tal­ly backed into some equip­ment, the shape of a valve burn­ing a cir­cle in his flesh that his father cooled with an ice cube.

She loved the sound of his voice in the car, the pri­vate qual­i­ty of it, dif­fer­ent than when she’d heard him talk in the hall­ways at school. When they pulled slow­ly into the Grahams’s dri­ve­way, every­one just opened their car doors and got out like no big deal, but she hadn’t want­ed the car to stop.

Shan­non was gig­gling and falling out of her san­dals, so the boys fol­lowed them across the dri­ve­way and the lawn to Laura’s grandmother’s house. Shan­non stopped under the porch roof and said, “Someone’s going to have to boost us into Laura’s room.”

Heath and Tim looked up to where Shan­non ges­tured, which was under Laura’s grandma’s win­dow, and she grabbed Shan­non by the sleeve and led her away to the oth­er side of the house where her bed­room win­dow was, on the sec­ond sto­ry, just over anoth­er side porch.

They all stood there for a moment, looked up, and eval­u­at­ed the height. Lau­ra hadn’t thought about how she’d get back in, only how she’d get out. Shan­non began to hic­cup.

Cov­er your mouth,” Lau­ra said.

Shan­non clapped her hands to her mouth, which made her stum­ble and sit down in the grass, hic­cup­ping even loud­er.

In between hic­cups, locusts buzzed. There was the faint sound of cars breath­ing by on the high­way a mile or so away. Heath stood fac­ing her. She couldn’t see his expres­sion. The street­light wasn’t shin­ing quite right. She could only make out the out­line of his fea­tures in the dark. She want­ed to store it away in her mind, the close­ness of him in the dark, the way she could almost feel the shape of his body in the air between them. Even though it was dark, she felt that some­thing had changed between them, some­thing that might make the way things were at school dif­fer­ent, but she wasn’t sure if it would make them bet­ter, or if she’d feel ashamed every time they passed each oth­er. Or was he wait­ing for her to say it was all right to boost her up?

Heath took a few steps toward her, and she felt the pres­sure of his close­ness in the air. She thought she could even feel his breath against her face, but she couldn’t be sure if it was his breath or just an espe­cial­ly soft breeze.

Tim said, “Heath, you bet­ter lift Lau­ra. This one’s too drunk.”

Heath didn’t laugh, but she could feel a laugh want­i­ng to come out of him. He bent over and clasped his hands togeth­er in front of her knees.

This is your room, right? I don’t want to get caught boost­ing you in the wrong win­dow.” This was the first thing he’d said to her, and she was so stunned by his voice, words meant for her, that she couldn’t say any­thing in response, so she kicked her shoes off instead. She placed her hand on Heath’s shoul­der. There was his shoul­der just under her hand, just the T-shirt between them. She made her­self breathe. She placed her bare foot in his palm. His hand was warm, and she felt the push of him as he thrust upward, and she was sud­den­ly stand­ing in his hands shoul­der high, high enough she could grab the gut­ter around the porch and then the porch roof itself. She’d still have to push her­self up with all her strength if she was going to wrig­gle onto the roof on her bel­ly. She thought she could do it, but she wasn’t quite sure. Her chest tight­ened, and the swirly plea­sure she’d felt from being this close clinched into fear. What if she couldn’t do it? She didn’t want her arms to shake in front of Heath. She didn’t want to not be able to pull her­self up.

Both her feet were in his hands now, and his arms waved a lit­tle under her weight. Her legs swayed and then rest­ed steady against his chest. She could feel the soft­ness of his face and the bris­tles of a lit­tle facial hair brush­ing against her thighs. She hadn’t known he had facial hair. It must have been invis­i­ble, just like the hair on his arms. “Can you stand on my shoul­ders?” he asked. It was a sim­ple thing to do, of course, but she held still and let her­self feel his skin against hers for a moment. Then she stepped onto his shoul­ders and knew she had to push now or she’d nev­er get up. She pushed as hard as she could, until she felt the grav­el scrape of the roof against her stom­ach and Heath’s warm hands gone from her feet.

I’m up,” she said.

She peered over the roof and saw the moon on his skin. There was the hint of a smile, a lit­tle crooked and a lit­tle flir­ty, she was almost sure. When she met his eyes, some­thing wrig­gled around inside of her, some­thing that felt like her­self, but not at all like the self she’d felt any oth­er time before.

It was the same feel­ing she had now watch­ing him as he came over to where she knelt in the yard. She didn’t know what was com­ing, but she knew that she want­ed him to keep walk­ing toward her.

***

I nev­er saw Lau­ra in per­son. A few school pho­tos of a blond, four­teen-year-old girl, the faintest hint of the woman she might have become in the slant of her eyes, the slight, closed-lip smile. I won­dered what she was hid­ing, or if she was just unwill­ing to expose her teeth, some flaw, real or imag­ined, behind those closed lips. She was pret­ty, even with her over-styled ‘80s hair, but not stun­ning, at least not yet, too young to know how to arrange her­self into someone’s ide­al. In the pic­ture, she wears a red mock turtle­neck, because she thought it sophis­ti­cat­ed, or maybe some­one else had pres­sured her to wear it for this one day.

I wasn’t any­where near Car­rolton the year she dis­ap­peared, although we would have been about the same age. I was a lit­tle old­er, but not much, shop­ping for my first col­lege for­mal the spring she dis­ap­peared. It’s hard for me to imag­ine a time before Laura’s sto­ry seemed to run in par­al­lel to my own, a time before I ever knew she exist­ed. I came to feel like her sto­ry had hap­pened to me, or at least to some­one I loved almost as much as myself. What­ev­er hap­pened to us both made me believe I could imag­ine what it felt like to have a life and what it must have felt like to lose it. Imag­in­ing that kind of loss came too swift­ly and eas­i­ly, wash­ing me away from myself. Only now do I know that loss­es like hers are felt far more slow­ly and more deeply than I was capa­ble of then. The way I imag­ined her dis­ap­pear­ance, the rea­sons for it, I real­ize now, were all my own ideas, even when I believed they were based on some truth I’d learned. It’s amaz­ing how eas­i­ly we can think we see clear­ly what oth­ers haven’t been able to see, and then how quick­ly and harsh­ly we can be dis­abused. All these expla­na­tions were nev­er­the­less my way of mak­ing sense of the choic­es peo­ple made, espe­cial­ly those I’d come to know and love. Imag­in­ing Laura—what hap­pened to her, where she was, what had caused it all—was some strange will on my own part to feel loss, to lose myself. Call it self-destruc­tion if you want.

Lau­ra was nev­er a per­son to me, not real­ly. She was always a ghost, a man­i­fes­ta­tion of my yearn­ing, of all our yearn­ings, the kind of sud­den slip­page of my life pass­ing over where hers once had been. Think­ing about Laura’s absence became part of what it meant to be me. I began to think of us as the same per­son. The more I tried to carve out my own life, the more what had been her life intrud­ed into mine. It was as if her sto­ry seeped slow­ly into my heart and filled it, until there wasn’t room for me to love any­one that had not been loved by her first. It’s odd how sim­i­lar grief and desire can be, the sim­i­lar­i­ty of the pain, the ache to touch the body of some­one you loved and to be touched and seen and smelled and tast­ed by them, not so dif­fer­ent from the nev­erend­ing desire, in grief, to clasp the body we’ve lost.

 

Maybe some­where in the world humans had evolved beyond the expec­ta­tion that a thir­ty-five-year-old woman should be “set­tled.” If there was such a place, I hadn’t been there. Even in cos­mopoli­tan Chica­go, peo­ple were the same; they were just qui­eter about it. Maybe I moved to Car­rolton because Chica­go was filled with peo­ple I knew, and I couldn’t stand the inquir­ing looks from my friends and fam­i­ly, the awk­ward din­ner con­ver­sa­tions. For a long time, I felt the begin­ning of my new life beat­ing its wings around inside my brain, an inter­mit­tent thump that told me I need­ed to get out. I want­ed to van­ish. The flut­ter­ing of desire and grief push­ing against my chest, want­i­ng to escape out my toes, my fin­ger­tips, my tongue—this ener­gy would com­pel me out of the city, cause me to leave my fam­i­ly and friends in Chica­go and not care if I talked to any­one I used to know ever again. When I final­ly did leave for the coun­try, it wasn’t like it is nowa­days, where farm­ing is almost chic. Nowa­days, if you announce that you intend to raise goats, peo­ple take it as a noble attempt to sep­a­rate your­self from cor­po­rate greed and mate­ri­al­ism. They call you a hip­ster, which is at least half a com­pli­ment. No, when I decid­ed to begin a farm in the coun­try, I wasn’t join­ing a trend. I sim­ply want­ed to dis­ap­pear. But I knew I still need­ed to eat. Choic­es that aren’t real­ly choic­es at all. A will­ful dis­ap­pear­ance.

 

I made my announce­ment to my fam­i­ly at their house in the sub­urbs on the day after Thanks­giv­ing. They didn’t say much, but their aston­ished looks made it clear that I might as well have announced I was join­ing a cult. They didn’t try to stop me. My par­ents are kind peo­ple, real­ly they are, and I love them, but their prox­im­i­ty always made me feel con­fined to being what they’d imag­ined, or at least what they imag­ined was good for me, and I want­ed to shed any ties to peo­ple who thought they knew what was good for me.

When I left Chica­go, I said my good­byes to a few friends and for­mer employ­ers, who no doubt were sure I’d be back. They believed my move was des­tined to be a brief, failed for­ay. The whole thing—the relo­ca­tion, the rur­al life—some indi­ca­tion of an acute but, they hoped, imper­ma­nent men­tal ill­ness. I nev­er men­tioned my plans to my boyfriend Ryan. I was pret­ty sure his reac­tion would not be what I hoped.

Ryan and I hadn’t been togeth­er long. It’s unfair for me to have want­ed him to ask me to stay. But I didn’t know any­thing then, so I thought the feel­ings we had for each oth­er could be per­ma­nent, or at least semi-per­ma­nent. By the time I moved, it had only been a few months since the first night we spent togeth­er in his apart­ment. Our love­mak­ing didn’t go much more than skin deep, at least for him, which isn’t the same as say­ing I didn’t try to make the sex mind-blow­ing, the kind of sex that would serve as a gauge some­how, an indi­ca­tor of whether we had a deep and last­ing bond. Maybe I should’ve known bet­ter, but I thought good con­sis­tent sex might sud­den­ly switch into love, mar­riage, and even­tu­al­ly fam­i­ly. I know now that what I felt for him was too dis­tant and fuzzy to be love. He prob­a­bly wasn’t in love with me, but I cer­tain­ly didn’t stop try­ing to make it so.

That first night, I was unknow­ing­ly ridicu­lous. I wore cloth­ing that tried far too hard, a black lace garter belt and real silk stock­ings under the beige slacks I wore to the bank where we both worked. We’d been casu­al­ly flirt­ing and drink­ing after work for a few weeks, and I was impa­tient to make our rela­tion­ship offi­cial. Try­ing to scratch my legs under my desk at din­ner, dig­ging down beneath the lay­ers of slacks and nylons, should have been a pret­ty big tell that this was my first attempt at a lin­gerie-clad seduc­tion. When Ryan said he was going to walk home from the bar, I invit­ed myself along, a mere twelve blocks in heels, mak­ing up some sto­ry about how I need­ed to take the El stop near his apart­ment any­way. In front of his build­ing, I daw­dled under a lamp­post until I could muster up the courage to ask for a tour of his place. This move was as good as telling him he could sleep with me. I knew this before I said it, knew it with every step I took as I fol­lowed him the two flights up to his apart­ment. It wasn’t him I want­ed, at least not specif­i­cal­ly. It was that idea of hav­ing a “him” or an “us” or a some­thing besides a “me.” Me. Such a lone­ly, juve­nile sound to the word. Him hums a sexy tune. Him­m­mm, I sang in my head and then us. So grown up. Strong. Stur­dy.

He imme­di­ate­ly set about mak­ing a cou­ple of drinks, as if we need­ed more, and I slouched on the counter, tilt­ing my hips toward him like a mag­net. When he still didn’t touch me, I stum­bled the short dis­tance to kiss him, an awk­ward wrap-around style kiss, try­ing to meet his lips with mine as he con­tin­ued to mix gin and ton­ics. After that, I excused myself, closed the bath­room door, unbut­toned my trousers and slipped them down over my hips, unbut­toned my blouse. There they were: the garter belt, the stock­ings, and the nip­ples that had been try­ing their best all day to escape a demi-cup busti­er. In the mir­ror on the back of the closed door, I tried to see myself as he might, as I want­ed him to, as a page ripped from a men’s mag­a­zine, the snags from my ear­li­er scratch­ing bare­ly notice­able in the dim light. When I emerged from the bath­room, I’m not sure which one of us was more stunned about what I’d done: gone from con­ser­v­a­tive bank­ing col­league to stock­ing-clad seduc­tress. Ryan stood up but didn’t take a step toward me. I turned around in a lit­tle cir­cle, as though I were audi­tion­ing in a dirty beau­ty pageant.

Talia?” he asked, even­tu­al­ly.

Don’t wor­ry about all the hooks,” I said. “I can help you take it off.” But I didn’t take it all off, not even when he final­ly moved toward me and the warmth of his open hand against my hip final­ly allowed the breath back into my body. I need­ed some of that cos­tume to make me into the kind of woman he would want to put his hands all over. I don’t know if it changed the way he thought about me, but I’ve yet to meet a man who will turn down a woman bla­tant­ly offer­ing her­self up in his kitchen.

After that, the offi­cial feel­ing I want­ed didn’t seem to arrive, but things did change between us. Not so you’d notice from the out­side, real­ly, but it did feel a lit­tle more like “Ryan and I” who began to go to Gib­sons for hap­py hour with Jane and Alec from work. We’d become two pairs. What kind of pair wasn’t yet clear, but we were offi­cial­ly not just a group.

 

Gib­sons was one of those restau­rants that hadn’t redec­o­rat­ed since the sev­en­ties. I’m talk­ing wood pan­el­ing and red leather booths. A place where stay­ing stuck was a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple. Pan­eled walls clut­tered with framed pho­tos of Chicago’s most pow­er­ful. At least, they were pow­er­ful once upon a time. Wannabes still filled up the place any night of the week, ogling them­selves in the lac­quered maple fin­ish of the bar. We were there too, except on week­ends, when tourists low­ered the pres­tige of the place. Instead, we’d stum­ble around the Gold Coast from the Hunt Club to late nights in the Back Room to hun­gover and recu­per­at­ing a few hours after brunch on Sun­days only to find our­selves back at Gib­sons every Tues­day for late lunch meet­ings that turned into ear­ly hap­py hour drinks. When I final­ly left Chica­go, Ryan and I were togeth­er like this five or six nights a week.

I threw myself into sex as though each thrust were a hur­dle, pulling out every sex act I’d ever read about in some women’s mag­a­zine. Our love­mak­ing ses­sions extend­ed until the wee hours of the morn­ing, prob­a­bly at least part­ly due to Ryan’s drink­ing, but also because I want­ed sex with me to make Ryan believe our alarm clocks would nev­er ring. I want­ed it to get so good that he’d for­get he had a job, or not care if he lost it. Nev­er­mind that all these hours of pelvic con­tact made morn­ing show­ers burn and wood­en chairs unten­able. Win­ning his love, or at least his desire for me over all oth­er things, felt, if not ful­fill­ing, at least promis­ing, as though it held the poten­tial for some­thing that might one day feel good.

Besides the con­ve­nience of the circumstances—we were work­ing in the same office, both sin­gle, close in age and sim­i­lar­ly attractive—I couldn’t tell you pre­cise­ly what drew us togeth­er. Our pas­sion for one anoth­er was almost abstract—it seemed dis­con­nect­ed from who we real­ly were. Our true selves, if we even knew them, we kept hid­den from one anoth­er. I didn’t know who I was, not real­ly, but I made it my goal to know him. I knew that he fold­ed his socks instead of balling them up. I knew he took baths. I knew he secret­ly believed in God. I knew the pat­tern of freck­les above his left nip­ple. Maybe our inabil­i­ty to know each oth­er more deeply had some­thing to do with hav­ing the kind of jobs we had, the sin­gle-mind­ed num­ber crunch­ing. Per­haps, despite our best inten­tions, we had grown quite used to cre­at­ing noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant or per­son­al with all of our goal-focused, pant­i­ng ener­gy.

And then a few months after we began this semi-offi­cial rela­tion­ship, in the absence of any true feel­ing I could iden­ti­fy, I made the deci­sion that he was the one for me. But I need­ed some kind of sign. I need­ed some­thing offi­cial. I explained to myself that he was as good or bet­ter than any­one else I was like­ly to meet, so, I thought, the one might as well be him.

At that moment, I was lying next to Ryan on his queen-size bed, and, for this first time, I noticed the puffy white com­forter, how the bed­spread matched the sheets and pil­low­cas­es, not just in col­or, but also in style, as though they’d been bought as a set. I stud­ied more close­ly the oak bed frame, a rather grand­moth­er­ly look­ing head­board, not hip at all, more on the sad side. The bed had a dust ruf­fle. This bed I had been fuck­ing him on for months—how had I nev­er looked at it before? How had I nev­er seen it for what it was? It had none of the posh pre­ten­tion of Ryan’s design­er suits, his watch­es, or his dis­cern­ing taste in food. I looked around at the rest of his room: the floun­cy white cot­ton cur­tains on his win­dows, not exact­ly clas­sic. Not ugly, either, but almost. You could def­i­nite­ly call them fem­i­nine. Each win­dow was topped with a white valance, some­thing that might have been in style ten years ago, unashamed of its dat­ed charm.

Per­haps his moth­er had dec­o­rat­ed his room. This is what I thought, but I decid­ed that whether he had cho­sen each item per­son­al­ly or whether he’d allowed his moth­er to dec­o­rate for him—a woman who was a com­plete and now nag­ging mys­tery to me, but a woman who seemed to have been at least some­what present dur­ing every naked moment we’d shared for the past few months—this décor was the sign I’d been look­ing for. I knew this man lying next to me. I knew the taste he secret­ly favored, or I knew his mother’s tastes. Either one seemed to me then like an inti­mate dis­cov­ery far beyond what I’d found explor­ing his nip­ples.

Those ugly cur­tains were the first tru­ly pos­i­tive qual­i­ty I’d noticed about him, and noth­ing I would have ever been privy to at work or dur­ing one of our bar chats. I had dis­cov­ered a truth: either he was close to his moth­er, or he secret­ly want­ed to be a grown-up with a wife instead of a moth­er.

He turned over on his pil­low, opened his eyes, and blinked sev­er­al times to wake him­self up, one of those uncon­trived, ear­ly morn­ing smiles on his face. For the briefest of moment, when I looked into his eyes, I thought I saw our future. But a few sec­onds lat­er, Ryan closed his eyes and fell back asleep, his mouth grad­u­al­ly slid­ing open, his alco­hol-twinged morn­ing breath hov­er­ing over us. I squeezed my eyes shut and imag­ined him a bit old­er, a bit thick­er. We had a son, per­haps, anoth­er on the way. I would keep him from being the kind of man who’d con­tin­ue to go to Gib­sons with­out me, who would flirt and even­tu­al­ly sleep with the bar­tender. I waved the scent of whiskey away and let my hand rest on Ryan’s chest. His body was smoother than any oth­er man I’d touched. I can still pic­ture the two of us, almost child­like, inno­cent, real­ly, cocooned in white cot­ton flounce. I looked at his face, will­ing him to open his eyes and look back at me, to say some­thing, any­thing that could mean some­thing. When, still sleep­ing, he slid his arm from under my pil­low and placed his hand on top of my head, a touch gen­tler and warmer than he ever man­aged con­scious­ly, I knew this was my sign. That touch radi­at­ed depend­abil­i­ty and deep love for me, sen­ti­ments he kept hid­den most of the time, true, per­haps even from him­self, but incon­tro­vert­ibly there nonethe­less.

I remem­ber that morn­ing vivid­ly, like you do when it’s your last, even though it wasn’t ours. I think it was a few days lat­er, back in bed at his apart­ment after a par­tic­u­lar­ly heavy night of drink­ing, when, naked and poised above me, he asked, “Is it okay?” He spoke soft­ly; his face over mine was unde­ni­ably attrac­tive, but slight­ly swollen from the heat and the alco­hol.

Here was my think­ing: because he had asked, this told me how much he want­ed it. “It” being “us,” and “us” in the largest sense you can imag­ine: “us” in the future-per­fect, plur­al form.

Is it safe?” he moaned.

I’d let my pre­scrip­tion run out the month before. I just hadn’t got­ten around to fill­ing it. Maybe I was depressed, maybe I want­ed it to hap­pen, but it was sub­con­scious, or near­ly sub­con­scious. I hon­est­ly don’t think I was think­ing about it con­scious­ly, but I wasn’t total­ly unaware of the need to get it filled. Lying there, his body hov­er­ing and poised on the brink, below him I was caught up in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent firestorm of nerves beg­ging for release. I hadn’t been mon­i­tor­ing my cycle behind his back, wait­ing for a vul­ner­a­ble moment, and in truth I couldn’t guess which day or hour was most dangerous/advantageous for my body. I hes­i­tat­ed for only a moment, the white valence over the win­dow waver­ing from the breeze of the fur­nace, before nod­ding and push­ing my hips firm­ly into his. This one moment in which I couldn’t find my usu­al log­ic; my mind, usu­al­ly so quick and sharp, in some state of delu­sion when Ryan asked, is it okay? It had nev­er been in my char­ac­ter before to let fate take its course. I took hold of the slip­pery wood­en head­board. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, yes, yes.”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Acci­den­tal Life”—excerpted from my novel-in-progress—began by think­ing of a friend whose wife had just left him, their child, and her old­er chil­dren, a young woman who seemed to fit the mold of housewife/mother so well, yet who also seemed to eas­i­ly shrug off that life and exit the lives of those who loved her most. But, of course, the idea of her nev­er left my friend or her children—or me, for that mat­ter. That moment con­nect­ed the cen­tral themes that sat­u­rate near­ly every­thing I’ve ever writ­ten: the fuzzy, per­me­able bound­aries between one life and anoth­er, between one tem­po­ral space and anoth­er. Laura’s sto­ry is also Talia’s sto­ry, and vice ver­sa. One life can hold and bleed into anoth­er, and that merg­ing cre­ates anoth­er sto­ry, and if that idea is so, then indi­vid­ual sto­ries can no longer be under­stood in iso­la­tion, and it becomes less clear who the words “I” and “you” and “she” describe.

It’s that play with pro­nouns that allows for story’s trans­mutabil­i­ty in Acci­den­tal Life; it is a form that I think nar­ra­tive­ly cap­tures the impulse to let our bod­ies slip into another’s skin, whether that skin is your friend’s or a character’s. That knowl­edge we cov­et in another’s lived expe­ri­ence, of course, makes us feel less alone. In this excerpt, Talia is very much feel­ing her own iso­la­tion and at the same time she’s pinned inside a busy city envi­ron­ment. The rest of the book con­cerns her search for self, a search that takes her out of her life and into Laura’s, a young woman who dis­ap­peared but nev­er quite left the con­scious­ness of her town or the peo­ple who loved her.

 

Desiree Dighton’s fic­tion has been a con­test final­ist at Glim­mer Train and Amer­i­can Short Fic­tion. She is an assis­tant edi­tor at Nar­ra­tive Mag­a­zine and received her MFA from South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives in Raleigh, North Car­oli­na.